We might think of trade fairs and exhibitions as something distinctly modern, but they have existed from ancient times and into our days.
In Medieval Europe, certain fairs grew larger than others, and became important hubs that helped link the various European regions together, and also fuel import to and export from Europe. In this article we will take a closer look at the Champagne Fairs, which were very important to the interconnected European economy of the High Middle Ages.
The Champagne Fairs were an annual cycle of trade fairs held in the County of Champagne in the 12th and 13th century AD. They were not fairs devoted to the drink champagne. Examples of products commonly bought, sold and displayed at the Champaign fairs were leather, fur, textiles and spices.
The Champagne Fairs were held in places located along ancient land routes in the County of Champagne, and each fair lasted for several weeks. The Champagne fairs developed from older local agricultural fairs in the region and came to be an important engine for the economy.
Strategically located in what is now north-eastern France, the Champaign Fairs were connected to the production, import and consumption in several other parts of Europe and formed an important link between northern Europe and the Mediterranean. They were for instance an important hub for connecting textile-producing areas in the Low Countries with the dyeing centres on the Italian peninsula, including the port town of Genoa which was also important for import into and export from Europe.
Furs and skins would arrive from far away places such as North Africa, the Iberian peninsula, and the island of Sicily. Marten and vair (a processed form of squirrel fur) arrived from the North. Northern Europe was also the source of a lot of textiles made from wool and linen, while imported silk arrived from ports in Southern Europe. Pepper and other exotic spices were also imported through souther Europe, and so were many medicines.
Not only physical goods arrived to the Champagne Fairs; they were instrumental in spreading new concepts of credit and book keeping from the south. The fairs also spread other cultural influences and the first Gothic-style buildings on the Italian peninsula were owned by Siena merchants who had embraced an architectural style they had encountered up north.
The Champagne Fair spots
The annual Champagne Fair circuit consisted of six fairs, with each fair lasting several weeks. The fairs were held in the five towns Lagny-sur-Marne, Troyes, Provins, Bar-sur-Aube, and Lagny. Each town provided huge warehouses, and remains of some can still be seen in Provins.
The towns where the six fairs were held all had certain things in common:
- Each town was located at an intersection or former way station of Roman roads.
- Each town was located near a river, although only Lagny-sur-Marne was by a navigable one.
Other than that, the towns were of varying background. Troyes and Provins had both been important administrative centers in the Charlemagne Empire, and they developed into the central towns for the County of Champagne and the Brie Champenoise, respectively. In Bar-sur-Aube, the Count of Champagne had a castle, and the fair was held right outside the precincts of it. In Lagny, the fair was held on the grounds of a Benedictine monastery, and Bar-sur-Aube was also a place with Benedictine monastery.
When were the fairs held?
The fairs were spaced throughout the year.
- The fair in Lagny-sur-Marne started the new year and opened on January 2.
- The fair in Bar-sur-Aube started on the Tuesday before mid-Lent.
- The May Fair was held in Provins and opened on the Tuesday before Ascencion.
- The fair in Troyes was known as the Fair of St. John or simply “the hot fair” and started on the first Tuesday after the fortight of St. John´s Day (St. John´s Day is Midsummer / June 24).
- The Fair of St. Ayoul of Provins opened on the Exaltation of the Cross (September 14).
- The Fair of St. Remi, also known as “the cold fair”, was held in Troyes and opened on the day following All Saint´s Day in early November.
There was a basic structure, but in reality, there was also a lot of flexibility.
The basic structure looked like this: Each fair started with the entrée, which were eight days that the merchants spent setting up. This period was then followed by the days allotted for various goods types. There were special days for cloth, special days for leather, and special days for spices and other avoirdupois (goods sold by weight). Accounts were settled during the last four days of each fair.
Carti missi, a type of delegated agents, were very important for the Champagne Fairs. These agents would work on behalf of the actual traders, and could for instance undertake contracts and recieve payments.
Credit instruments were important for the Champagne Fairs and extensively used. Italian money-changers were present, and would take care of credit settlements and payments, and also establish future payments on credit. Bills of exchange were commonly worded to expire on one of the Champagne Fairs, and were dealt with by the money-changers there. While in the region, the money-changers also had the chance to lend money to regional nobility.
Interestingly, the Champagne Fairs remained very important “clearing house events” for paper debts and credits even after they began to decrease in important as trade fairs for physical goods. They had a well-established system of commerical law regulated by private judges that remained stable even after some trade-route changes had began to occur in western Europe.
Many of the travellers to the Champagne Fairs used pilgrim routes that were already well-established by the 12th century, such as the ones reaching Santiago de Compostela on the Iberian peninsula from various other parts of Europe. Another important pilgrimage route was the Via Francigena, which ran from the cathedral city of Canterbury in England, through France and Switzerland, and then to Rome and Puglia. (In Puglia, pilgrims could find ship transport to the Holy Land.)
Connection to the Champagne Counts
The growth, popularity and longevity of the Champagne Fair circuit is largely attributed to the protection and support it recieved from the rulers of the County of Champage. From 950 AD to 1316 AD, the County of Champage was ruled by a long line of Counts of Champagne, who were technicaly under the control of the French monarch but had a high degree of autonomy within the county. The Champagne Fairs began to decline once the county was brought into the Royal Domain and became an intergral part of France.
The Counts of Champagne managed to make their county the ideal place to hold these fairs, as they guaranteed the safety and property rights of those who participated. Merchants and trading organisations felt safe attending the fairs, and the Count would enforce contracts signed at the fair. The Count even had a special police force assembled for the fairs – the Guards of the Fair. The police would preserve public order, interevene in both criminal cases and civil disputes, hearing complaints and enforcing contracts, and check that weights and measures followed the strict rules. A participant who was found in breach of the rules could be prevented from participating in future fairs.
Some counts even managed to extend the protection to areas outside their own county. One notable example is Count Thibaut II, who negotiated a treaty in which the Kings of France pledged to take all merchants under royal protection as they passed through French royal territory going to and from the Champagne Fairs.